The Middle Mile

This week my thoughts have returned again to monopolies. I still dislike them. Susan Crawford’s article on the “middle mile” section of the telecoms network. This is effectively the part of the net that connects local ISPs to the internet’s “backbone”. A comprehensive study by the FCC shows that 95% of locations are served by at most two middle mile providers. According to the Consumer Federation of America, this has cost the American consumer $150 billion since 2010. For me, this is the worst kind of monopoly because consumers don’t even see it. ISPs pay middle mile companies, and whereas everyone and their mother hate their ISP, most people don’t know the middle mile provider their data goes through. Because people don’t know that this company is ripping them off (via their ISP), it’s far easier for those companies to lobby government to deregulate them. Regulation is difficult to maintain when the public is ignorant of the issues at stake.

These debates are just a part of the larger net neutrality debate about what internet delivery companies can and can’t do. Something I’ve learned this semester is that the internet is neutral by design (it treats all data equally). The protocols define the internet and how it works. End users, severs and so on all speak this same language and if they don’t, they won’t work. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) takes care of this and it seems to have done a wonderful job at having such a confusing structure that no single interest or company has been able to capture it. The IETF also has no power, it just makes voluntary standards that help maintain compatibility. However, as long as this compatibility is maintained, ISPs and other internet providing companies can do what they want, unless government or “the market” regulates. I know that in the past ISPs have banned users from attaching certain types of devices to their networks, interestingly one such example were WiFi routers (a modern variant is disallowing third party routers). This has nothing to do with treating data equally, just with how much control the ISPs have over how users use their services. Thus ISPs can still provide a connection to the internet, without providing the same freedoms usually associated with it.

In the summer of 2016 I sat in on a meeting of the Cambridge broadband task force which had been set up by city hall to explore different ways to make broadband connects more attainable/affordable for all city residents. One option they were considering was to provide broadband like any other public utility. I don’t remember if anything came of it but I think that it’s import to look into these sorts of solutions. If there’s anything that the past 100 plus years of telecom history tells us, it’s that the industry tends strongly towards monopolies unless regulated heavily.  I worry even more about the wireless industry because of how a few key players (Qualcomm) have rather predatory patent licensing practices that literally all 3g and 4g phone manufactures have to pay. These patent companies are very similar to the middle mile provides because they are invisible to the consumer yet control the network and, I assume, cost the consumer millions each year. Qualcomm even has ads saying; “You don’t know us but you enjoy us every 9.8 seconds” — as if.

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